Alternative and Complementary Medicine: Combating Chronic Pain

by Celeste Cooper, RN Health Professional

I learned to manage my pain holistically. Maybe that’s because I am a nurse, and nurses are trained to think that way. I have done biofeedback, talk therapy, and hypnosis. I still practice meditation, mindfulness, myofascial self-treatment, and T’ai Chi. This approach is complementary to the traditional medical interventions I receive — and according to a 2007 National Institutes of Health survey, I am not alone. Approximately 38 percent of adult Americans use some type of complementary medicine.

Alternative vs. complementary medicine

Alternative medicine is treatments that are not considered “traditional medicine,” such as massage and mind-body techniques instead of epidurals for back pain. Complementary medicine (CAM) includes alternative medicine approaches such therapeutic massage/body work in conjunction with traditional chronic pain interventions.

Alternative medicine

According to the Indian Board of Alternative Therapies, there are more than 100 systems of alternative medicines still in practice around the world.

Three you might recognize are:

Ayurveda – A long-established system originating in India over 5,000 years ago.

Ayurvedic medicine includes nutritional counseling, massage, natural medications, meditation, lifestyle changes, yoga, and other modalities to restore balance of the body, mind, and spirit.

According to, training as an Ayurvedic health counselor requires a high school diploma or equivalent and an Ayurvedic practitioner requires “Ayurvedic Health Counselor” certification and usually college level anatomy and physiology education. Master's and doctoral degree programs require a bachelor's degree.

Homeopathy – The practice of using tiny doses of a substance — remedies — to create symptoms so the body is stimulated to heal itself.

Homeopathy is not regulated. However, licensed naturopathic physicians (N.D.’s) practice homeopathy and medical board certification in homeopathy is available to licensed medical doctors (M.D.’s) and doctors of osteopathy (D.O.’s). Those without specific medical training in homeopathy are considered counselors instead of medical professionals.

Naturopathy – The practice of working to restore and support the body’s ability to self-heal through a broad-spectrum of non-invasive treatments, such as nutritional counseling, herbal medicine, homeopathy, and oriental medicine.

A licensed naturopathic physician attends a graduate-level naturopathic medical school and is educated in the same basic sciences as an M.D. (or D.O.) (, accessed April 8, 2017).

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, different areas of practice for treating chronic pain are included in CAM, and many parts of one field can overlap with another.

A sampling of complementary approaches:

  • acupuncture and/or acupressure

  • art, dance, and music

  • autogenic Training

  • balneotherapy (bathing in mineral springs)

  • biofeedback

  • body movement therapies like Ashton-Patterning, Feldenkrais method, Hellerwork, kinesiology, physiotherapy, Qigong, T’ai Chi, and yoga

  • body work like Alexander technique, craniosacral therapy, myofascial release, osteopathic manipulation therapy (OMT), reflexology, Rolfing, Rosen method, shiatsu, spray and stretch, therapeutic massage, Trager work, manual myofascial trigger point therapy, and Vodder manual lymphatic massage and drainage

  • Chinese or Oriental medicine

  • counseling/psychotherapy

  • dietary supplements

  • electromagnetic therapy

  • hydrotherapy

  • hypnosis

  • meditation

  • nutritional and herbal approaches

  • touch therapy, such as Reiki

  • visualization and guided imagery

When we find strategies that fit with our personal choices, we do better.

Cost and credentials

There is evidence that a holistic approach to management of chronic pain is helpful. However, approaches outside of mainstream medicine are seldom covered by insurance, making them unavailable to many of us. And, schooling and accreditation vary widely. Some states require certification for various practices, while others do not. This makes it important to know if the person treating us is qualified. Watch for red flags, such as

• claims for a medical cure

• asking for a signed financial agreement before assessing your condition

• failure to provide credentials

Finding a qualified practitioner is as important to treating our pain as finding the right doctor. A recommendation by family, friends, or physician is often the best place to start.

Celeste Cooper, RN
Meet Our Writer
Celeste Cooper, RN

Celeste Cooper, R.N., is a freelance writer focusing on chronic pain and fibromyalgia. She is lead author of Integrative therapies for Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Myofascial Pain and the Broken Body, Wounded Spirit: Balancing the See-Saw of Chronic Pain book series. She enjoys her family, writing and advocating, photography, and nature. Connect with Celeste through Twitter @PainedInkSlayer.